2022 Worldwide Postdoc/Student Competition Winners
Marie-Christine Nizzi, Ph.D.
Research Associate in Cognitive Science
Dartmouth College/Chapman University
Free will is one of the most debated aspects of human life. Under the rise of neuroscience, empirical studies have made strides in modeling free will and agency after the experience of healthy participants capable of a motor output, like a button-press. Yet healthy participants seldom experience psychological distress due to a lack of motor-based agency. In contrast, patients with paralysis experience a sharp reduction in this kind of motor-based agency. Research about free will and agency ought to better represent these non-motor experiences, and explore ways to support the sense of free will and agency in patients with disability. Patients with locked-in syndrome (LIS) combine extensive paralysis with preserved cognitive functions. They offer an ethically and clinically compelling case to identify non-motor factors mediating the experience of agency and free will. In turn, these factors could lead to breakthroughs by informing clinical interventions improving the lives of nearly 5.4 million persons living with paralysis.
Before we do something, we often imagine what it would be like if we did it. We mentally simulate possible courses of action and their likely consequences. This way, we can evaluate whether those courses of action are worth taking, without running the risks involved in actually taking them. This process can generate different kinds of mental imagery. It can be auditory imagery of hearing yourself say in inner speech that you will move your hand now, motor imagery of moving your hand now, or visual imagery of seeing how moving your hand now would look like. The purpose of this project is to investigate the role of such mental imagery in the experience of volition. The results could improve our understanding of how we become aware of our own intentions: Imagining can be consciously experienced and therefore could be one of the ways through which we become aware of intending to act. The results could also improve our understanding of the brain signals, such as the readiness potential, that are linked to voluntary action: Imagining could be one of the things that are reflected by these signals. The project will investigate these questions both theoretically and experimentally.
Recent graduate with a Master’s in Cognitive Sciences
Université Lumière Lyon 2 / co-acredidate École Normale Supérieure (ENS)
Investigating the neural basis of action initiation would help understanding better pathologies associated with a deficit in volitional processes (e.g. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, Schizophrenia, Parkinson) or to improve the use of technologies to control external devices, such as brain-computer interfaces (e.g Neuroprotheses). Yet, the current scientific literature lacks reliable neuro-behavioral markers of action initiation. However, there is a large agreement to interpret the Readiness Potential (RP), a slow negative cortical activity preceding action, as a neural marker related to action initiation. However, this relation remains controversial and an alternative interpretation indicated that the RP could be a mere artifact reflecting a stochastic accumulation of noise. The debate is thus still ongoing and the aim of the present project will be to clarify the relationship between the RP and action initiation. In order to do so, we will vary gradually different features of action initiation and observe their effects on the RP. If the RP merely reflects noise accumulation, it will challenge the claim that it is related to action initiation.